Last week at the annual gathering of the Tennessee Annual Conference a resolution was presented and adopted (approved by 2/3 of the voting delegates) as a response to the actions of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. As you likely know by now, that meeting was a special “called” general conference focused on considering a way forward in regards to the division we face in our church over the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in our denomination. Currently, our church law forbids “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ persons to be ordained and forbids pastors from participating in same-sex weddings. As the church has been divided over these issues (although I would argue ultimately the divide is about how we interpret the scriptures), the Council of Bishops put together a commission to discern a “way forward” and presented several plans to the General Conference. Ultimately, after much heated and difficult debate, the General Conference adopted the “Traditional Plan” which retains much of the current language but significantly ramps up the penalties for persons who feel that they cannot abide by those provisions, and provides a pathway (albeit a difficult one) for congregations to leave the denomination if they disagree with the current church law.
There is much more involved in how that happened but I don’t have several hours to write a full treatise. What I can say with confidence is that a significant number of faithful United Methodists throughout the U.S. believe that the General Conference made a major mistake and are thinking about how to respond to the actions taken in St. Louis.
However, what folks on both sides of the issue agree on is that the St. Louis meeting was harmful to the witness of our church and to various individuals, especially LGBTQ persons, in what was said during the debate. Granted, in some cases, there were cultural and language barriers based on the reality of being a global church with representatives from all over the world who have very different understandings of faith in Jesus Christ. But those barriers sometimes led to speech that was violent in nature and certainly less than loving in dealing with those who believed different things. There have been many people who have struggled with their belief in Jesus in the light of those words, and the church leaders who submitted the resolution were attempting to address the toxic nature of the St. Louis meeting and offer values for our conference that were more sensitive to being in ministry with all people.
You can read a full copy of the resolution here, but I think the most important part is the last two paragraphs which outlines the actions and values affirmed by the conference in the passage of the resolution:
Therefore, be it resolved by the 2019 Tennessee Annual Conference that: the Tennessee Conference apologizes for the harm that actions at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference have caused LGBTQIA+ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of
Christ. We affirm that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” and urge all in ministry, whether lay or clergy, to affirm that no human being is incompatible with Christian teaching.
(2) And be it further resolved, that we urge all lay and clergy in the Tennessee Conference to make all reasonable efforts to address issues related to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage in a manner so as to treat church trials and judicial processes as a last resort.
What does this mean?
First, that we recognize and acknowledge that the rhetoric used at the General Conference caused much pain and as brothers and sisters in Christ we express our regrets for the harm that was caused. This is not an apology for anyone’s beliefs or convictions, but rather a recognition that sometimes what we say can have unintended consequences and that we are called to humility in seeking reconciliation with those whom we may have unintentionally harmed.
Second, we affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church that ALL people are of sacred worth, created in the image of God. This is nothing new — we are already supposed to believe this.
Third, noting that our statement about the incompatibility of Christian teaching about homosexual practice says nothing about individual identities. People will disagree about whether certain sexual practices are consistent with our faith, but ALL people are of sacred worth and are not rejected as human beings. LGBTQ folks are welcome in our churches and are not to be cast aside for their identity.
Fourth, we recognize that church trials are expensive and painful processes for all involved, and should be the action of last resort. Having served as the secretary for a trial a couple of years ago, I know first hand the expense of pulling a trial together, and as importantly the emotional toll on all involved, from the accused to the judge to the jury. Our Book of Discipline maintains a “just resolution” process which is to be considered first and the conference simply expressed their desire that this process is pursued fully before we try to obtain a resolution through a trial.
Nothing in this resolution falls outside the parameters of our current Book of Discipline. As reflected in our Social Principles, this resolution is completely in keeping with our church teaching, which says:
We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
There will be some who will continue to see this statement as supporting a “lifestyle” outside of God’s will, based on their reading of the Bible. There is certainly room for disagreement about the questions of identity and sin in relation to sexuality. However, what we as a United Methodist Church have consistently said is that ALL persons are created in God’s image and must be held in love. This resolution is an attempt to do just that.